In its online debate this week on hydraulic fracturing, The Economist poses this question: “Do the benefits derived from shale gas outweigh the drawbacks of fracking?” It’s a thought-provoking question that has elicited a number of thoughtful responses.

Let’s examine some of the arguments of those who answer that question no. Now, in a debate you typically lead with your best argument, so it’s telling that opposition’s opening shot against hydraulic fracturing basically is a big swing and a miss. Here it is:

Fracking currently enjoys exemptions from parts of at least seven major national statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. If fracking is so safe, why can't the industry be held to the same standards as everyone else?

OK, so what about hydraulic fracturing and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA)? Background:

• Years after state regulation of hydraulic fracturing was implemented, Congress enacted the SDWA in 1974 – by which time fracturing had been used for 25 years with no environmental problems.

• Under the SDWA, states used extensive underground injection control (UIC) programs to manage liquid wastes and the reinjection of produced waters. These programs dealt with liquids that would be injected, periodically and/or continuously, and those intended to remain in underground geologic formations.

• By 1980 Congress – recognizing that a number of state-administered UIC programs were well established, creating a need for further state flexibility – modified the SDWA to give states the option of gaining federal “primacy” for existing UIC programs, based on the demonstrated effectiveness of state oil and natural gas UIC programs.

Observations:

• At no time in these congressional discussions was it suggested hydraulic fracturing was covered under UIC requirements.

• Congress addressed the issue of hydraulic fracturing under SDWA in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 – preserving the state regulatory system that has worked effectively for the past half century.

• The act clarified that the SDWA wasn’t the right law for regulating hydraulic fracturing with the exception – allowing the regulation of hydraulic fracturing under the SDWA if diesel fuel was used. This, though no instances of actual damage from using diesel in the fracturing process were identified.

In short, reflected in this issue alert from Energy In Depth, hydraulic fracturing was never regulated under the SDWA and thus couldn’t have been granted an “exemption.” So, in The Economist debate, the opponent’s best argument against hydraulic fracturing boils down to something like this:

Left turns while driving enjoy exemptions from parts of at least seven major national statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. If left turns are so safe, why can't drivers be held to the same standards as everyone else?

While left turns are not specifically mentioned in these above statutes, it doesn’t mean drivers are exempt from environmental responsibilities. There are countless federal environmental rules covering transportation that drivers have to follow, just as there are countless federal environmental rules covering all aspects of natural gas production – including hydraulic fracturing operations, which producers have to follow. See here for an example from the Natural Resources Defense Council explaining how the Clean Water Act applies regarding safety or this on fluid disposal (my bolds):

Spent or used fracturing fluids are normally recovered as part of the initial production after completion work is finished and processed with other production streams (handled as part of a closed system to be recycled for future use) or properly disposed of on site, either by surface discharge where authorized under the Clean Water Act or by injection into Class II wells as authorized under the SDWA.

The fact that left turns aren’t specifically mentioned in these statutes doesn’t mean they’re unregulated. Actually, they’re heavily regulated on the state level – as is hydraulic fracturing. Which is another argument made, that hydraulic fracturing has spread with little oversight.

States like Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado, North Dakota and others where hydraulic fracturing is occurring have considerable experience regulating it – recognized a couple of times by former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson:

“… you can't start to talk about a federal role [regulating hydraulic fracturing] without acknowledging the very strong state role. We have no data right now that lead us to believe one way or the other that there needs to be specific federal regulation of the fracking process."

And again here:

“States are stepping up and doing a good job. I always say it doesn't have to be EPA that regulates the 10,000 wells that might go in."

Clearly, the states have a primary interest in effective oversight and have, with the help of organizations like STRONGER, developed well-functioning regulatory regimes tailored to their specific geology, hydrology and other conditions. Through the FracFocus online registry, communities can learn the makeup of the fluids being used to fracture nearby wells. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer:

“Simply put, because of our long history of oil and gas development and comprehensive regulatory structure, Pennsylvania does not need federal intervention to ensure an appropriate balance between resource development and environmental protection is struck.”

Here's another claim: potential groundwater contamination. Lisa Jackson again:

“In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemical contamination of groundwater.” (Fox News, April 27, 2012)

And:

"I'm not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.” (Congressional testimony, May 24, 2011)

API’s Erik Milito, weighed in on The Economist debate as a featured contributor:

Repeated Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) tests have disproved claims of groundwater contamination in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Furthermore, other tests have shown that the natural gas that seeped into a homeowner's well in Parker County, Texas, had nothing to do with a natural-gas well in the area. And recent US Geological Survey groundwater tests in Pavillion, Wyoming, did not find chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

A final argument to mention here concerns air quality. The Consumer Energy Alliance’s David Holt, writing on Fuel Fix.com, reminds us that from 2008 to 2012 U.S. carbon emissions dropped 20 percent, to levels not seen since 1992:

A major factor in the country achieving this feat is the production and use of domestic natural gas. Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling has opened up vast new resources of shale gas, once thought to be locked away forever in a vault of rock. Now, the U.S. is actively tapping this amazing resource.

Hydraulic fracturing is environmentally safe and well-regulated, and industry is devising new technologies and procedures to improve the safety and efficiency of natural gas development using fracturing.

Now, let’s talk a bit about hydraulic fracturing’s benefits. And on that point we don’t have to make up arguments because the benefits actually exist – lifting entire state and regional economies along the way. Milito:

The list of positive attributes of the shale energy revolution is long: creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs; a surge in domestic production that has reduced reliance on imports; billions of additional dollars in revenue for the government; lower household energy bills; a cost advantage to American manufacturing; and a stronger American position in world affairs and global energy markets.

IHS’ study projects the benefits from unconventional oil and natural gas, which is energy developed from hydraulic fracturing:

• More than $5.1 trillion in oil and natural gas company spending on unconventional oil and natural gas activity between 2012 and 2035.

• 1.7 million jobs supported by unconventional oil and natural gas this year, growing to 3 million by the end of the decade and to 3.5 million in 2035.

• $2.5 trillion in cumulative federal, state and local tax receipts between 2012 and 2035.

So, back to The Economist’s question: Is fracking worth it? Energy, jobs, economic stimulus, revenues to governments – all while natural gas from hydraulic fracturing is environmentally safe and well-regulated. Sounds like a big yes.